Ornette Coleman R.I.P.

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Ornette Coleman died this morning at the age of 85.

Here's the start of his composition Peace, from the 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come:

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The other musicians are Don Cherry (cornet), Charlie Haden (bass), and Billy Higgins (drums).

In 1959, one of the local delinquents that I hung out with was a jazz enthusiast, who praised Coleman to me and got me to buy the album. If you don't know Coleman's music, let me urge you now, 56 years later, to go buy a copy in his memory.

Although I knew almost nothing about jazz in 1959, I actually liked the music, and so when my sixth-grade teacher assigned the composition topic "The American that I admire most", I chose Ornette Coleman as the subject.

The teacher thought I was making fun of her, or something, and so I got sent to the principal's office for a lecture about taking assignments seriously. I considered responding with a discussion about taking student compositions seriously, but restrained myself, and solemnly (though insincerely) promised to be more decorous in the future.

Some interviews and discussion can be found here.


  1. Pat Barrett said,

    June 11, 2015 @ 11:11 am

    I grabbed me some Ornette Coleman in the late 50s or early 60s (not this particular album) and worked at understanding it. I had listened to quite a bit of jazz and my mom had been a torch singer in the 30s, but I listened to Pharoah Sanders and others that were a challenge to my Phoenix, AZ ears. (we actually have always had an active jazz scene here, going back to the Century Club, the Zanzibar Club where Howard Roberts would sit in, and, of course, the Elks Club – segregated venues where Whites could enjoy jazz). One of my breakthroughs was to understand that the piano was a percussion instrument; once I stopped listening for Norwegian folk tunes in the music of McCoy Tyner, I progressed rapidly.

  2. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 11, 2015 @ 12:35 pm

    The obit in Variety, speaking of that very LP, made the point "While the bop roots of the music are immediately evident to today’s listeners, the unconventional tonal and rhythmic approach of his band nonplussed audiences of the day." That point can perhaps be generalized to all sorts of fields (even including e.g. syntactic theory) where from our own vantage point we see the history in hindsight, so on the one hand we fail to comprehend how revolutionary such-and-such an innovation felt in context, because we have never personally experienced what the field was like without that innovation and its various second and third order consequences, but on the other hand we can see more clearly points of congruence and continuity between the innovation and what came before it that might have been lost on those who were contemporaneously freaked out by the novelty. Of course, if our own first personal experience of the field coincides with the arrival of the novelty (like the 6th-grade myl with little sense of the pre-Ornette bop tradition) all bets may be off.

  3. Ben Zimmer said,

    June 11, 2015 @ 12:44 pm

    Here's an old Ornette Coleman story that's Language Log-friendly (as told here):

    The term free, taken in isolation, can be misleading. When Ornette Coleman gave a concert in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1961, the organizers advertised the concert as "Ornette Coleman—Free Jazz Concert." The crowd that showed up for the performance took this at face value and protested the fact that they were required to pay an entrance fee.

  4. Jenny said,

    June 11, 2015 @ 3:30 pm

    Thank you for this. I never heard Coleman before, and I have missed out! He is wonderful. The sound reminds me a bit of Chico Hamilton's music.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 11, 2015 @ 10:01 pm

    Just as a PSA for those who want to hear more, perhaps much more (recommended dosage may vary by individual), WKCR has preempted all of its regular programming and will be playing nothing but Ornette Coleman's music around the clock until next Wed. morning. 89.9 on the dial if in the NYC area, or available via internet connection at their website.

  6. Mark Mandel said,

    June 11, 2015 @ 11:12 pm

    @Ben, how on earth can the organizers have missed that?!

  7. Neal Goldfarb said,

    June 12, 2015 @ 10:21 am

    Let's not forget that Ornette put out an album called In All Languages and another called Sound Grammar. And then there's his compositions "Blues Connotation" and "Written Word."

  8. languagehat said,

    June 12, 2015 @ 10:29 am

    Since J.W. Brewer didn't provide it, here's a link to the WKCR Coleman page; click on the "Live Broadcast" link at upper right. (I was listening yesterday, but for some reason I'm having a hard time getting it to work today.)

  9. Rodger C said,

    June 12, 2015 @ 10:52 am

    @Mark, surely we've all heard of nerdview.

  10. Rodger C said,

    June 13, 2015 @ 5:41 pm

    I didn't mean that to sound as snotty as it seems to me now. But yeah, nerdview raises its ugly head, or perhaps other end.

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